Last year, New York City’s Randall’s Island hosted 85,000 EDM-loving festival-goers at Electric Zoo. This Labor Day weekend, when the massive party celebrates its third-annual event, the island is projected to be swarmed with almost 100,000 revelers. Thank the impossibly stacked lineup for that. Over the course of three days and four themed stages, Electric Zoo will showcase more than 100 knob-twiddling artists including staggered headlining appearances by pop-arena giants like Tiesto, David Guetta, Skrillex, Diplo, and Benny Benassi. The loud, riot-inducing world of dubstep will make their bass known in head-ringing force as well. (Flux Pavillion, Doctor P, Excision, Datsik, and 12th Planet are all scheduled to play.) But, thankfully, the combined 36 hours of music is not all bright lights and earth-shattering bass. In anticipation of the impending spectacle, we picked through the festival’s non-stop cast of dancefloor conductors for our hidden favorites. Behold, a list of must-see acts at Electric Zoo that are, in fact, not Skrillex, Diplo, or Tiesto.
Friday, Riverside Arena, 3:30 p.m.
The LA-via-DC duo of Dave Nada and Matt Nordstrom may be most popular for their championing of the reggaeton-meets-house genre of moombahton, but they’re far from new to festival arenas. The pair has roots deep in hardcore, Baltimore Club, drum-n-bass, and techno and have become experts at mixing tense, bass-heavy builds with their slower, swaying moombahton counterparts. Whether they’re flipping classically built club tracks into an electro-fuzzed, stage-diving rally cry (with their remix of Blaqstarr’s “Get Your Hands Up”), turning indie jams into wistful, beachside grooves (via their take on Alex Clare’s “Up All Night” and Win Win’s “ReleaseRPM”), or championing Latin-fusion dance music via their new moombahton label, count on Nadastrom to kick-off Electric Zoo with a bang.
Listen: Alex Clare – “Up All Night” (Nadastrom Moombahton Remix)
Friday, Riverside Arena, 6 p.m.
By spinning the bright horns and sparkling tambourine behind Beyonce’s “Countdown” to almost dizzying levels of cheeriness, Jack Beats somehow transformed one of 2011’s best pop songs into an even more satisfying feel-good time with their Top Billin Party edit. And that keen ear in mixing pop sounds with dance nerdery is exactly why we’ll be watching them at Electric Zoo. Made up of DJ Plus One, a former DMC champ from London’s legendary Scratch Perverts turntablist crew, and Beni G from the Mixologists, the pair mix their hip-hop swag with catchy, siren-like electro synths and acid-house grit.
Listen: Jack Beats – “Get Down”
Friday, Sunday School Grove, 8 p.m.
During my visit to Electric Zoo’s inaugural spectacle in September 2009, Luciano surprised the audience by dropping Lumidee’s “Never Leave You” to a dimly lit tent of chain-smoking techno enthusiasts. He also immediately won my vote for best act of the day. By playing the syncopated dancehall clap of the song’s Diwali Riddim under the uplifting synth melody of “Strings of Life,” a house-techno classic by Rhythim is Rhythim (an alter ego of Detroit pioneer Derrick May), the DJ brilliantly bridged the gap between two very different and unsuspecting audiences. Luciano’s recent Vagabundos party mix, named after his house party-themed monthly at Ibiza’s Pacha, further shows his commitment to the cause, mixing tropical-influenced sounds of his homelands with popular easy-listening like James Blake and Jamie Woon among others. Expect the unexpected amid a set rooted in deep house, techno, and minimal from Luciano.
Listen: Luciano’s Essential Mix for BBC1
Saturday, Sunday School Grove, 2:40 p.m.
For those revelers struggling to get out of bed and through their hangovers for Day 2 of Electric Zoo, DJ Koze is the act for you. A stalwart of the techno scene, Koze stretches the arch of his sets with subtle technical cues: a barely audible growing ambient sound that fades out just as you were beginning to notice it, or the gentle tolling of a pitched-down cymbal, for example. The result is a quietly churning, quicksand pull of sound that’s as tension-filled as it is easy to get lost in. “I prefer it when the music becomes slower and sexier the longer it goes,” he once explained. Since Koze’s set is so early in the day’s packed lineup, we recommend that you grab a bottle of water and let the icon’s minimal beauty ease you into Day 2 … and don’t hold your breath waiting for a drop.
Listen: DJ Koze – “Let’s Love”
CLAUDE VON STROKE
Saturday, Sunday School Grove, 4 p.m.
It’s impossible to separate Claude Von Stroke from his role as founder and creative director behind his Dirtybird and Mothership imprints. The DJ’s label hosts heavyweights like Julio Bashmore and the Martin Brothers and, like his peers, Von Stroke’s brand of sexy, late-night house, is best when taking cues from the springing grooves of UK bass and funky. He was a rapper once, too, and has no qualms with dropping his favorites into his live sets. Throwing a sample from EPMD’s “Strictly Business” over the furiously clattering beat of Ardalan & Justin Martin’s “Lezgo,” for example. Claude Von Stroke will keep you on your toes.
Listen: Claude Von Stroke – “Who’s Afraid Of Detroit”
MAYA JANE COLES
Saturday, Sunday School Grove, 5:20 p.m.
First things first, please don’t confuse this young London-based house maven with her hometown peer, MJ Cole. Especially since the 25-year-old producer first started getting attention under a different name altogether. In 2010 Coles released the gorgeously lush dubstep track “Can’t Hide the Way I Feel” as Nocturnal Sunshine: The song mixed a tinkling running piano theme with a lusty echoing vocal that pulled away from the then-popular darker, grittier dubstep trend of the era and instead embraced garage kicks and the uplifting energy of deep house. And while ’90s-era house was a little before her dancefloor days (she’s 25), the DJ continues to champion the style’s clean, melodic structures, and mixes in her young indie flair along the way. (Her remixes of Little Dragon’s “Ritual Union” and Florence + the Machine’s “Spectrum” are especially banging.)
Listen: Maya Jane Coles – “What They Say”
Saturday, Hilltop Arena, 6 p.m.
It’s unlikely that you made it out of 2011 without getting Martin Solveig and Dragonette’s insanely catchy, bubblegum-pop anthem “Hello” stuck in your head at least once. Their previous collaboration, “Boys & Girls,” could easily boast the same for 2010. While he’s got the dance-charting sing-alongs and production credits for Madonna and Bloc Party under his belt, Solveig’s most alluring characteristic is his personality. His music videos almost always feature a lighthearted joke made at his own expense, and the twee Parisian playfulness shines through in his music offscreen as well. Expect lovey teen anthems, sparkly house remixes of Robyn and Britney Spears, and to 100-percent absolutely scream along to “Till The World Ends.” It’s cool though; everyone else will be, too.
Listen: Martin Solveig & Dragonette – “The Night Out”
Saturday, Mainstage, 7:30 p.m.
There are two things that make Axwell a must-see at Electric Zoo. For one, the title of his first big release carries a sentiment that should double as a mantra for all Electric Zoo goers: Feel The Vibe. More significantly, however, the DJ served as one-third of supergroup Swedish House Mafia and has energetically stamped huge bouncing synths and fist-pumping house onto tracks like the Pharrell-commissioned Billboard hit “One.” Axwell is a DJ that could very easily teeter into the growing pot of cheesy house music but just barely keeps from tipping over the edge. Instead he’s an ideal act for festival frivolity: day-glo bodypaint, huge trance-like drops, and fantasies of gigantic Ibizan dance-floors.
Listen: Axwell ft. Steve Edwards – “Watch The Sunrise”
Saturday, Sunday School Grove, 9:30 p.m.
An old-school purveyor of dark techno, the physical act behind the way Liebing plays music is just as intense as the music itself. Armed with a mixer and about a million pieces of hardware — a synthesizer, two laptops, a midi controller, and a wireless pad to manipulate them all — the DJ creates most of his music live, on the spot, by altering drum patterns, looping effects, and tweaking melodic patterns into hard, pulverizing soundtracks to the night. With a gift for soul-shaking, face-smacking bass, Liebing’s music can usually swan from terrifyingly sinister (“American Madness”) to wildly empowering (“Tubular Bell”). In the end, it’s all about how you choose to approach it.
Listen: Chris Liebing – “Turbular Bell”
Sunday, Riverside Arena, 12:20 p.m.
There isn’t a more perfect backdrop for Eliot Lipp than on a riverside stage on a Sunday summer afternoon. The Brooklynite goes to old-school rap, electro-funk, and psych-rock for inspiration. In turn, the DJ’s sets are a modern, beat-driven fusion on these vintage sounds. Whether it’s adding a hip-hop break over a jazz sample and warbling synths or looping congo drums to add an African feel to a techno beat, Lipp does it with flair.
Listen: Eliot Lipp – “Rap Tight”
Sunday, Hilltop Arena, 3:05 p.m.
Before Girl Talk, there was Z-Trip. Popularly considered the king of the mash-up, the DJ’s wildly entertaining shows rely heavily on turntablism, where his flawlessly quick mixes and beat juggling often makes dancefloor audiences resemble those at DMC championships. But his innovative, genre-crossing song pairings are what makes him a fun showman on top of that. He credits Afrika Bambaataa and hip-hop godfather Kool Herc as creative inspiration and will just as easily rock a throwback rap set next to a Kenny Dope tribute and into a reggae set. It’s a grab bag, but one that’s necessary in an otherwise EDM-centric lineup.
Song: Z-Trip – “Motown Breakdown”
Sunday, Riverside Arena, 6:45 p.m.
Electric Zoo hosts three days of battling bass and, as far as this writer is concerned, Benga is the best dubstep act on the bill. Behind the claptastic garage and elastic bass behind “Night” and the gurgling propulsion of Katy B’s “On A Mission” is an enigmatic performer. During his live sets, Benga runs the gamut of bass, mixing UK Funky with Miami Bass and the gritty aggressiveness of Baltimore Club with grime. There are other cues pulled from grime as well, as the DJ often brings an MC (or plays one himself), energetically jumping around stage and screaming into the crowd with every drop. Live Benga is the type of DJ that you’re sure is having just as much fun as you are.
Listen: Benga & Coki – “Night”